Bioethicists Object to Rich Tech Folks Seeking Immortality

The ultimate class envy?


Washington Post

The Sunday Washington Post featured a fascinating front page article, "Tech Titans Latest Project: Defy Death," which reports how prominent Infotech moguls are funding research that aims to increase healthy longevity and forestall the ravages of aging. As the Post reports:

Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley's biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.

Hooray for them, right? Not so fast say various bioethicists in quoted by the Post:

Their confidence in that wizardry and their own ideas may lead them to underestimate the downsides and even dangers of the work they are funding, say some science philosophers, historians and economists. Their research in stem cells, neuroscience, genetically modified organisms and viruses, for example, tinkers with nature in big ways that easily could go awry — and operates in a largely unregulated space.

Their work to slow or stop aging, if successful, is also likely to lead to broader societal upheaval, increasing pressure on natural resources and on the economy, as people live longer, work longer and imperil already strained entitlements such as Social Security. Life extension also would radically change the most important building block of society: the family. No one seems able to predict what life might be like when half a dozen or more generations are alive simultaneously.

Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, worries that some of the billionaires' obsession with longevity may be driven as much by hubris as a desire to do public good.

"It's incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way," she said. "But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I'm worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in." …

Zoloth, the Northwestern University bioethicist, said there is a reason why science often moves slowly.

"Making scientific progress faster doesn't necessarily mean better — unless if you're an aging philanthropist and want an answer in your lifetime," she said. "Science is about an arc of knowledge, and it can take a long time to play out. Sometimes we won't know answers for generations." …

"I think that research into life extension is going to end up being a big social disaster," [Francis] Fukuyama, [political theorist and former member of the President's Council on Bioethics,] said in an interview. "Extending the average human life span is a great example of something that is individually desirably by almost everyone but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do."

Leon Kass, a physician and former head of the President's Council on Bioethics observes: 

"Would it not be the ultimate injustice if only some people could afford a deathless existence, if the world were divided not only into rich and poor but into mortal and immortal?"

I much prefer Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel's view of the matter:

"I've always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing," [Thiel] said. "I think that's somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it."

"The great unfinished task of the modern world is to turn death from a fact of life into a problem to be solved — a problem towards whose solution I hope to contribute in whatever way I can."

Good for him.

For more background, see my 2008 interview, Technology is at the Center, with Thiel in which he offers his views on the ethics of increasing healthy human lifespans and the Singularity. See also my article, Eternal Youth For All, in the March 2015 issue.